What to eat before you work out has long been an area of uncertainty for runners and athletes. Should we just eat the same stuff we consume during a workout or race? What about a simple protein drink or meal-replacement shake? Far too often, the result of my confusion has been a few swigs of Gatorade, a simple banana, or worse—nothing.
Gatorade doesn’t cut it
A few bad bonks have pretty much eliminated the chance of my starting a workout on an empty stomach, and I’m happy to say I hardly ever drink commercial sports drinks from 7-Eleven anymore. Having done a lot of reading on the topic of pre-workout nutrition, I present the five nutritional pillars I use to build the perfect pre-workout drink. (Note: “drink” implies the use of water. I didn’t list it as one of the keys, but for performance and safety’s sake, make sure you include water in your pre-workout meal.)
The 5 essentials of pre-workout nutrition
1. Consume carbohydrates and protein in a 3-to-1 ratio, and include healthy fat (but just a little).
There are few arguments about this point. The 3:1 ratio is almost universally advocated for optimal absorption of nutrients. For a big workout, or if you have some time to let your stomach settle, 30 grams of carbs and 10 grams of protein is great. Otherwise, halve the amounts. Mark Verstegen, of Athletes Performance Institute, recommends a scoop of protein powder in a half-glass of Gatorade or watered-down orange juice.
As for the fat, a teaspoon or so of healthy oil, such as flaxseed or Udo’s blend, is all you need to help deliver nutrients where they need to go. Coconut oil is even better for workouts, as the liver treats it similarly to glucose, a carbohydrate.
2. Include quick-working, high-glycemic carbs for energy now, sustained release (but not starchy!) carbs for energy later.
I first learned about this one from Brendan Brazier’s and Vega Sport. In many of his recipes for pre-workout drinks, Brendan uses dates (glucose) as the high-GI, instant-energy sugar, and agave nectar (fructose) for slower energy release.
Why no starchy bagels or bread? To convert starch into usable sugar requires your body to work, and during a workout you’d like to use your available energy for movement, not digestion. If you’re going to consume something starchy, a sprouted version is best.
3. If you’ll sweat during the workout, you need lots of electrolytes.
Lack of electrolytes can do more than just bring on a nasty bonk; in fact, it’s downright dangerous. Hyponatremia is the condition of having too much water and not enough sodium (an electrolyte) in your system, and it has proved fatal for endurance athletes who load up on water but don’t replace lost electrolytes.
Lots of salt is lost through sweat, and you should take in electrolytes during your workout. Coconut water contains electrolytes; so do most sports drinks and gels, so most of us get them during workouts. But you can get a head start on electrolyte replacement simply by adding salt or dulse powder to your pre-workout drink.
4. Consider caffeinating for improved performance.
Caffeine has been shown to significantly improve performance in endurance events and workouts. Whether you want to use it is your own decision, but it’s certainly not something you should rely on for every workout—doing so will result in increased adrenal fatigue and slower recovery afterward.
To add caffeine to your pre-workout smoothie, you can replace the water component or your pre-workout drink with brewed yerba mate or tea, or even add ground mate leaves directly to your smoothie. Alternatively, you can drink a cup of coffee as many runners do, but that can be rougher on both your intestines and your adrenal glands.
5. Add optional superfoods to go the extra mile.
While the above guidelines should be enough to give your workout a swift kick in the ass, you can always make your pre-workout drinks even better with the addition of a few superfoods. Chia seeds are a popular one these days, and your body will absorb them in either whole or ground form (be prepared for them to gel though). Maca powder is another one, great for helping the adrenal glands recover from the stress of a workout. Acai, goji, chlorella, greens powder, ground flaxseed, hemp… the list goes on.
For a great ideal pre-workout drink recipe that makes use of all of these concepts, head on over to my Thrive Fitness review, where I included such a recipe at the end of the post. The book, incidentally, is a fantastic resource for delving deeper into the ideas of workout-specific nutrition.
Check out Part II of this series, focusing on the recovery meal.
What do you think; how many of these keys does your pre-workout smoothie use? What do you eat/drink before a workout? Feel free to leave a link to your pre-workout meal in the comments.
For more posts (and recipes) on natural sports nutrition, check out the Running Fuel page.
I believe that plant-based is the healthiest way you can eat -- both for how you feel and perform in the short term, and for long-term health. But there are a few nutrients that are hard to get from plants, and I didn't want to take a whole multivitamin with so much extra that I'm already getting from my food. That's why I created Complement Plus, the perfect nutrient formula for plant-based athletes.
Complement Plus brings together, in one place, the essential nutrients that are missing from a reasonably diverse, whole food plant-based diet:
- DHA/EPA Omega-3s
- Minerals like zinc, iodine, and selenium
Click here to learn more.